The second film Howard Hawks (The Criminal Code) made at Columbia Pictures is among his greatest works. John Barrymore plays a theatre impresario down on his luck. Carole Lombard is his former protégé, now a major star. When the two meet by chance aboard the Twentieth Century locomotive, their love-hate relationship is reignited.
Now recognised as a classic, Twentieth Century is the film which established the template for the screwball comedy – and made Lombard a star.
Considered one of the prototypes for screwball comedy, Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century comes to Blu-ray through Indicator, presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration performed by Sony. The disc is locked to region B, menaing North American viewers will have to own a player that can playback region B content.
Though the picture is rarely what I would call “razor sharp” (an issue that certainly comes down to the original photography or the source materials themselves) it’s still quite remarkable what they’ve been able to accomplish. Grain can get heavy, but it looks spectacular, completely natural and clear, and never noisy or blocky. Outside of some minor blemishes there’s next to nothing regarding damage, the film looking the cleanest I’ve yet seen. Contrast looks spot on, with gray levels and shadows blending nicely, while blacks are deep when needed (though I wouldn’t say they ever look pure) and whites can be bright without looking blown out. There’s a real wonderful photographic look to the picture.
Detail, as hinted before, can be limited but I was still pretty impressed overall. Most of the film looks sharp enough, tweed jackets, elaborate dresses and the like looking pretty good, delivering decent fine object detail. And despite what looks like a soft focus being applied here and there, close-ups can also look remarkable. But there’s usually a bit of a haze around things, and there are times where the image goes quite soft moving further from the center of the frame. This latter issue could, again, come down to the original photography but it looks more like a side effect of something like warping or bubbling to the original elements. Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure.
Despite any of that it’s still incredibly striking what Sony has been able to accomplish with this restoration while Indicator themselves have encoded it immaculately.
The film’s audio, presented in lossless PCM mono, sounds clear and is easy to hear, though it does have a certain lifelessness to it when Barrymore and Lombard are screaming at each other. It could come down to the original recordings or a filter being applied, though I’m not sure which. Despite that, damage isn’t an issue, dialogue is perfectly easy to hear, and music manages to reach some okay highs without coming off shrill.
Indicator throws together a decent—if unspectacular—special edition for the film, starting things off with a new audio commentary by critic and writer Farran Smith Nehme. It’s a typical yet solid academic track, Nehme talking about its stature as one of the first screwball comedies (along with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night) and she delves into the film’s humour, the film's staging and pacing, and the performances of the two leads, even referencing other writings to show differing opinions or observations. This also leads to details about director Howard Hawks, the various performers and their careers up to this point (with focus more on Barrymore and Lombard), along with discussion around the original play, the changes made from stage to screen, and its writer, Ben Hecht. I’ve listened to so many commentaries the last couple of weeks (ranging from absolutely dire to great) making it hard to heap a lot of praise on any track that does what you expect it to, at the very least, accomplish. This one certainly does, but Nehme has a passion for the film that comes through, keeping the track engaging and informative, making it worth the listen.
Indicator also includes a couple of video features, starting with a new 16-minute discussion featuring Lucy Bolton going over the career of Carole Lombard, who had sort of floated around Hollywood until she found her niche in comedy. Amusingly, her finding her footing almost resembles that of her character’s in this film, Hawks having to have a discussion with her after what was apparently a disastrous first day. Indicator also digs up 5-minute’s worth of old VHS footage of filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich offering his thoughts on the film and why he feels it's a classic, even recalling a discussion he had with Hawks around it (and he shares the story about how Hawks’ discussion with Lombard about how she should play the character).
As Indicator has done many times in the past they also include the super-8 version of the film, a format pre-dating home video, offering a compressed version an entire movie wittled down to 20-minutes (give or take) so it can sit on one reel to make it easily portable. This version (which has been scanned at 2K, though with no restoration) depends heavily on a narrator to iron out details between key scenes as we jump off from Barrymore’s and Lombard’s characters first meeting, down through the two falling in love, the two then wanting to basically murder each other, and then the antics on the train. It’s interesting some of the material they do keep (it is an important enough plot point, but this version does spend more time than it probably needs to on a character that passes bad cheques) but it does keep the focus primarily on the key sequences in the film.
The disc then offers another version of the story through a radio performance of it for a 1939 episode of The Campbell Playhouse, featuring Orson Welles and Elissa Landi in the leads. This is an adaptation of the play and not the film (which made several changes itself), though it still compresses it down for the 55-minute runtime, and only 45-minutes of that is the actual play. This is great for comparison’s sake, though for some reason it didn’t work all that well without the visuals, despite Welles and Landi putting a decent amount of frantic energy into their performances (I don’t recall Welles ever coming off as manic as he does here in anything else). Some sequences get a little drawn out and others get skipped, though I’m not sure how much of that has to do with what’s actually in the play and what isn’t when comparing to the film.
The disc then closes with Indicator’s usual image gallery, this one featuring a decent number of productions photos, lobby cards, and posters, along with the Austin Film Society trailer promoting the film’s new restoration and running 52-seconds.
Indicator also includes one of their typically great booklets, starting off with an excellent and lengthy analysis of the film by Pamela Hutchinson, who offers a subtle counterpoint to the story around how much Hawks’ probably influenced Lombard’s performance. The booklet then features reprints of excerpts from interviews with Hawks, including one conducted by Joseph McBride and another conducted by Peter Bogdanovich, with Hawks recounting how he came to make the film along with some discussion around its pacing. The booklet then closes with excerpts from reviews for the film, which were positive at the time, despite the film not doing well at the box office. The booklet also includes newer reviews around rereleases.
Considering the film’s stature I guess I was expecting a more packed edition, and I was disappointed that it looks like Indicator had to drop a feature they previously announced: an archival recording from 1997 that they had called the “Howard Hawks Study Day.” At any rate, it’s still a drastic improvement over Sony’s previous barebones DVD editon, with Indicator's material well worth the effort of going through.
Maybe not the stacked edition I would have expected, but the new 4K restoration and final presentation more than make up for it.